one thing to intensely dislike George W. Bush. It's another thing entirely
to want to defeat him so bad, you are willing to adopt his own bring-'em-on
worldview. But that is exactly the position in which many progressives and
the "liberal media" find themselves.
The precipitating event may have been the Richard Clarke affair. The former Bush counterterrorism official, of course, was and is a hawk. And the essence of his much-discussed critique is that the administration did not initiate enough proactive measures before 9/11 to knock out Al Qaeda. This position has been taken up gleefully by many anti-Bush partisans, from columnists and talk show hosts to activist organizations and elected officials.
But have these Bush critics stepped back and thought out the implications and consequences of such a stand? Or are they just looking for anything to use against Bush, even if it violates some of their most cherished tenets?
Because that's just what the Clarke position does. How should the United States have dealt with Al Qaeda before 9/11? Launch a pre-emptive invasion of Afghanistan? Despite a series of attacks by Al Qaeda—in Kenya, Saudia Arabia, Yemen, etc.—it would have been difficult, absent the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, to win world support for large-scale military action. Small, coordinated, surgical efforts, perhaps—like those Clinton had already tried (bombing a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant tied to Osama) without notable success. But a truly massive assault would only have stirred up the current global maelstrom far earlier. And it wouldn't necessarily have done anything to prevent the 9/11 attacks.
The truth is, it would have been awfully difficult for us to stop Al Qaeda no matter what the administration did. For one thing, Al Qaeda is not a sovereign state, but an organization. For another, the more it is attacked, the more it morphs from entity to state of mind. And states of mind are notoriously difficult to subdue.
Liberals would be well-advised not to get into bed with hawks when it is unnecessary, not only because such politically motivated alliances are disingenuous, but because they would be a strategic mistake. The current geopolitical situation is incredibly delicate and complicated, so it is natural for people to seek some stance—any stance—that seems decisive and offers promise of a payoff in November.
The only aspect of Richard Clarke's critique that can and should be embraced is his documented claim that the Bush administration had long sought excuses to wage war with Iraq. That's Clarke's gift. Stressing the malfeasance, deception and stupidity underpinning the Iraq initiative is consistent with the principles of multilateralism and of thoughtful, balanced, justifiable global action. What's not okay is appearing to support massive pre-emptive action that most likely will not secure the peace.
Liberals would be well-advised not to get into bed with hawks when it is unnecessary
It is the Iraq situation—and only the Iraq situation—that can form the basis of an effective campaign critique. It is comprehensible, neat and indisputable, and it has the potential to resonate with everyone in this country except for the incurably dense and the willfully blind. You don't have to be a liberal to recoil when the deaths of U.S. service personnel in Iraq top 600.
If progressives want to draw public attention to inadequacies in the administration's war on terror, they might supplement the critique of the Iraq distraction by highlighting the limitations of administration policy since 9/11.
Plenty of fodder presents itself. Just the other day, The New York Times reported how the White House had tried to slip through Congress—in the metaphorical dead of night—a veto of requests from the IRS for more auditors to track the money flow to Al Qaeda. This act was not only transparently a bad idea, it was also an extreme example of short-term stupidity in service of political goals—slashing vital spending to fund inadvisable tax cuts for the rich. On a more macro level, the administration should be savaged for failing to reign in Ariel Sharon's destructive policies, which don't make Israel safer and which are now perhaps the primary casus belli for would-be jihadists everywhere.
So thanks, Richard Clarke. We appreciate your candor and your willingness to brave the administration's fury—book deal or not. We respect your view that more should have been done prior to 9/11. But we aren't sure what that might have been. We have trouble with the general notion of pre-emption in the absence of hard intelligence relating to specific upcoming terror strikes—without which, the result will be only more bilious anti-Americanism and less security.
Russ Baker is a New York based, award-winning journalist who
covers politics and media. This article first appeared in